Regular rains in the state's arid Banni grassland force Maldharis to take up farming, an internal feud erupts
Fifty five-year Khan Mohammed Abdarman is a proud Maldhari, one of India’s oldest pastoral communities that has lived a nomadic life in Gujarat’s arid Banni grassland for over 500 years. But in 2007, he decided to do the unthinkable—to settle down and do farming. “The decision was difficult, but it had to be taken as I was unable to feed my cattle, who we consider our family members,” says Abdarman, who today grows guar and jowar in 20 hectares. He says it was the only way he could adapt to the sudden increase in rainfall in the arid grassland, which is home to more than 40,000 Maldharis.
He explains that the increase in rainfall meant the grassland got taken over by Prosopis juliflora, an invasive species that was introduced in the area in the 1950s. The species, locally called gando baval, literally, the crazy growing tree, today covers almost 55 per cent of the grassland, spanning over 2,500 sq km. This has led to an acute shortage of fodder. Interestingly, the rains made the arid region conducive to farming.
“Traditionally, the region received rainfall every four years. Starting 2000, it has been raining almost every year,” says Pankaj Joshi, executive director of local non-profit Sehjeevan. Ovee Thorat, researcher with Bengaluru-based Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environ- ment (ATREE), says the last long dry spell in the region was seen between 1970 and 1980. Data with the Bhuj Metrological Observatory shows that the area today receives 1.4 times more rainfall than the average in 1991-2000.
While changing rain pattern sets the stage for agriculture, other factors pushed the Maldharis to bring the land under plough. “Around 2008, the forest department started to cut plots in the reserve to stop ingress of saline water from the neighbouring salt mash of Rann of Kachchh. The community viewed the move as a way to lay claim on the grassland over which they have traditional ownership,” says Thorat. The fear was further fuelled because the state government is yet to give community forest rights (CFR) to the Maldharis under the Forest Rights Act 2006, he says. The community, in 2012, filed for 47 CFR claims. Today, farming is being carried out in over 17,000 ha, which is roughly 7 per cent of the reserve.
The sudden surge in farming has divided the community. In May this year, Banni Breeders Association, a local organisation of Maldharis working to conserve the grassland, filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal against rampant farming. On July 11, the tribunal told the forest and revenue department to stop all agricultural activity in the grassland.
“We have been rearing cattle for generations. That is what we do. In the past five or six years, farming has become rampant. This is not good for community as we are not like the settled agriculturists,” says Salam Hasham Halepotra of Hodko village. He owns around 100 buffaloes. He says from being an area where resources was communally owned, people are staking individual claim on the grassland by converting those into agricultural lands. Last year, Misriyara panchayat in eastern Banni region asked the district collector to intervene and through a public meeting made the encroachers stop farming. “To save the farmlands, they started digging trenches around the field where our buffaloes would often fall and die. Our estimate is that the community was losing over 200 animals every year due to the trenches. So we had to stop it,” says Bhuddha Hazi Khamisha, sarpanch of the panchayat.
Farming is destroying not only the community, but also the ecology of the grassland. “Banni’s landscape, like any other ecologically sensitive area, has reached here through a long process of successive natural changes. Agriculture will tip the balance and reduce the nature’s ability to restore the land. Once ploughed, the soil is exposed to erosion due to the sea breeze. Over the time, only the lower alkaline soil layers will be left. Then nothing will grow here,” warns Joshi.
“The wind velocity during summer is very high in Banni. If the land is ploughed, the high rate of top soil erosion will lead to desertification,” says Vijay Kumar, director, Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology.
(This article was first published in Down To Earth's October 16-31 print edition under the headline 'On a losing streak')
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